Some big-city restaurant patrons are getting used to laws requiring proof of full COVID-19 vaccination to get a table indoors, but a proposal to do the same in Portland has met with passionate support, outrage or ambivalence from some local restaurant owners.

Supporters of a vaccination mandate – including several Portland restaurant owners – say enacting a citywide rule would create a uniform expectation for restaurant patrons, protect workers and curb coronavirus infection, sickness and deaths.

But other restaurant owners say the time for mandates and restrictions is over. At this point in the pandemic, they say, it is up to people to protect themselves and restaurant owners to enforce their own rules, rather than have government create standards for everyone.

Others are ambivalent or skeptical – unlikely to endorse a new restriction without knowing more about how it would work and how effective it could be.

“I know other cities have done it, (but) I don’t know what the results are,” said Jeff Perkins, CEO of Portland Pie Co., a local pizza chain with eight locations in Maine and New Hampshire.

So far, requiring Portland Pie employees to wear masks seems to have helped prevent infections in the workplace, Perkins said. He’s not sure whether an indoor vaccine mandate would help, considering that vaccinated people are also catching COVID-19.

“I have to do more research about what is the expectation, why are we doing it,” Perkins said. “I am not clear what it would benefit or stop.”

Perkins added that the company has no position on a vaccine mandate at this time.

PETITION STIRS DEBATE

An informal online petition posted this week asks the city of Portland to enact a vaccine mandate for certain indoor spaces, “including but not limited to restaurants.” Twenty-four people, including the owners of Eventide Oyster Co., parent company Big Tree Hospitality, Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, Izakaya Minato, Wayside Tavern, Arabica Coffee Co. and others had their names on the document as of Wednesday afternoon.

The petition doesn’t include details of such a requirement, but points to New York City, where dining inside, as well as going to a gym, movie, theater, museum or other indoor public space, has required showing proof of full vaccination since September.

A similar requirement in Portland would eliminate a patchwork of rules set by individual establishments, keep patrons and workers safer, insulate small businesses from shutting down or reducing service, and normalize carrying a vaccine card to participate in public life, the petitioners said.

Patrons walk to the entrance of The Great Lost Bear in Portland on Wednesday. The restaurant’s general manager says he isn’t opposed to a proof-of-vaccine mandate for customers but wants more information. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The concept is hardly alien to Portland. Big venues such as Cross Insurance Arena, State Theater, Thompson’s Point and Merrill Auditorium already require or plan to require that customers provide vaccine proof or a recent negative COVID-19 test.

Although “not every business or individual will support such a mandate, we believe that this will be a largely welcome and popular decision,” the petition states.

Ken Macgowan begs to differ.

“I think it is the dumbest thing I have ever heard,” said Macgowan, owner of The Porthole Restaurant and Bar on Custom House Wharf.

If restaurants want to check vaccination status and keep unvaccinated customers out, it should be up to them, Macgowan said. Eradicating the virus is impossible now, and people should learn to live with it, not make new regulations that will mean higher costs and fewer customers for businesses.

“For them to tell everyone they have to do it (require vaccines), I think that is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard,” Macgowan said. “I am a strong believer (in) vaccines, but I am not in the business of policing it.”

HELP OR HINDRANCE?

Sam Minervino, who owns three low-key restaurants in Portland, feels the same way. At Tomaso’s Canteen, Samuel’s Tavern and Pizza Villa, there’s no social distancing, and masks are optional. The state dropped nearly all coronavirus safety requirements for restaurants and bars in May, aligning Maine with federal recommendations at the time.

Restrictions made sense in the beginning of the pandemic when no one knew how deadly and dangerous it would be and there were no vaccines, Minervino said. These days, adding new rules would be overreach.

“Now that people have a choice to get a vaccine or get a booster or wear a mask, people are more inclined to put it on the individual to protect themselves,” Minervino said. “I think in this country, you should be free to decide for yourself. I think it is up to individual freedom of choice.”

Meghan Austin of Portland sits at the bar with her husband, Matt Austin, at Tomaso’s Canteen on Wednesday in Portland. Austin says she supports a vaccine mandate for restaurants and bars. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Meghan Austin, who was at Tomaso’s with her husband on Wednesday afternoon, disagrees. Making people show a vaccine card to do everyday things like get a bite to eat and a drink could drive up vaccination rates, she said.

“It will incentivize people to get vaccinated and hopefully provide some protection for people who are working through this,” Austin said. “I feel it’s smart to get the shot and do what you can to protect yourself and stop the drain on our healthcare resources. We need to do all we can as a community to keep us all safe.”

The Great Lost Bear on Forest Avenue retained larger distances between tables and plastic barriers even after the state dropped its restrictions, but the restaurant has mostly gone back to business as normal.

Adding a vaccine requirement isn’t a nonstarter for the business, but more information is needed, said General Manager Byrd Dickson.

“We are more than happy to comply – we want to do anything to get to the other side of this,” Dickson said. “If they are going to do it, it needs to be done sooner rather than later.”

SOME ALREADY REQUIRE IT

Some restaurants have practiced extreme caution throughout the pandemic and already require proof of COVID-19 vaccination from customers.

At Cocktail Mary, a small bar on Congress Street, health and safety have been watchwords since the pandemic’s onset. Owner Isaac MacDougal only opened for indoor seating in October.

“It came a time that there wasn’t a choice – it was either let people inside or close the business,” he said.

MacDougal wanted to make patrons who had come to his bar largely because of its health protocols feel safe indoors, so he required proof of vaccination from everyone.

“I was a little concerned about requiring it, but I have not turned one guest away and have gotten only positive feedback,” he said. “It has driven business – people feel safe and confident that if there is a vaccinated person who has COVID-19 in the room, their likelihood for catching it is greatly lessened.”

Cocktail Mary owner Isaac MacDougal stands in front of his establishment Wednesday. The bar on Congress Street has required proof of vaccination since October. MacDougal supports the idea of a citywide mandate for indoor dining. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Business aside, vaccine requirements are the best way to prevent Maine’s health care system from being overwhelmed, MacDougal said. Even though Portland has one of the state’s highest vaccination rates and lowest number of recent infections, it attracts people from across the state and New England. If a new rule makes unvaccinated people get their shots, it could help slow infections.

“I think this is the last tactic we have in our playbook to encourage people to get vaccinated,” MacDougal said. “FOMO (fear of missing out) is a tool.”

Vaccine mandates already are in place in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans, and other cities, including Boston, will begin requiring proof of vaccination early next year.

In New York, which has had a vaccine mandate since late summer, problems with customers who refuse to comply have been rare, said Nick Soloved, manager of Ukranian restaurant Veselka in Manhattan.

“It depends on the demographics – the politics,” Soloved said, and New York City’s generally progressive politics mean most of his customers are willing to comply with the law.

“Occasionally, we’ll get one person who won’t comply,” he said, but Soloved and his staff “handle it assertively” and make clear that they simply won’t seat someone who can’t produce verification that they’ve been vaccinated.

“Overall, we haven’t had any problems with anyone,” he said.

COUNCIL SUPPORT UNCERTAIN

It is unclear how far supporters can push a proof-of-vaccine requirement at City Hall in Portland. So far, only one city councilor, Andrew Zarro, has expressed interest publicly in such a proposal.

On Monday, the City Council will consider a different proposal for a mask mandate in indoor public places, as well as whether to continue with an emergency order that has allowed the council to meet remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mask mandate, sponsored by Zarro, would require anyone who enters a public building to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth, although face coverings could be temporarily removed in isolated locations indoors, such as a restaurant table or booth where a patron is eating and drinking. Public schools, churches and office space where the occupants are separated from the general public would not be included in the mandate.

The proposal also includes exemptions for people under the age of 2 and those with medical conditions that would be irritated by a face covering, and for people who are alone in public buildings. There would also be an exemption at businesses that actively screen for vaccination status and limit entry to people who have established proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

Staff Writers Edward D. Murphy and Rachel Ohm contributed to this report.

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